One of the most insidious teachings of some televangelists today is what is called the “health and wealth gospel.” This is the supposedly good news that if you really trust in Jesus, then all your problems are over. Some will say that you need to live the life of victory, and that if you are not living such a life, then you are lacking in faith. Such “ministers” never preach about sin, never preach about Christ’s death on the cross as an atonement for sin. They are not committed to preaching the whole counsel of God. Instead, they will say that they just want people to feel happy and uplifted. They will say that they will let other people preach about those unhealthy topics that make us feel like sinners in need of God’s grace. They don’t want to preach anything that might possibly make a person unhappy with their unholiness. Well, such “ministers” will never, ever preach on this passage of Scripture, which directly contradicts their message. This passage tells us of the cost of discipleship. It tells us to count the cost of discipleship, to be ready to pay the price, and even consider that an inestimable bargain.
The previous passage is important for our understanding here. In the previous passage, Peter had rebuked Jesus for saying that He had to go to the cross and suffer death as the true Messiah. Peter had a wrong idea of what Jesus’ Messiahship was supposed to look like. He thought that it meant a political Messiah who would free Israel from the Romans. What he did not realize at this moment in time was that Jesus was coming to free sinners from the much greater oppression of sin and death. And to do that, He had to die Himself and take on the guilt of the people.
Jesus starts our passage with this principle: like Master, like disciple. Probably Peter knew this principle quite well. That may have been one reason why he objected to Jesus saying that He had to die. For he knew that if Jesus died, the chances were rather good that he would die, too. Jesus here says that Peter was right in that fear. However, it shouldn’t be a fear at all! Instead, we should consider that a bargain. What is the nature of this bargain?
Well, it is that a person must deny himself, take up his cross, follow Jesus, and be willing to lose his own life for the sake of Jesus. The person who does that will never lose his soul, but will receive repayment for anything he loses in this life, and then some! That is the bargain. And what a bargain it is!
But we must be aware of the cost, and it is costly. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this point very well in his very famous book The Cost of Discipleship. He sets out the price of discipleship and urges Christians to be ready to count the cost, and to be ready to pay that cost. What is that cost? Well, it has to be up to and including one’s life. Jesus says that a person must deny himself. That means that a person must no longer be the ruler over his own life. Instead, Jesus must be the ruler over his life. That in turn means that a person must give his life to Jesus, so that if Jesus requires that life to be given, then the person must be willing to give it. Then, further, it means that a person must be carrying his cross. Now, this does NOT mean those irritating small things in life. Many people trivialize what Jesus says here by saying, “Well, it’s just my cross in life to put up with my sister or brother.” The cross does not mean this. The cross was the most shameful death that anyone could die in those days. It meant the same thing today as the electric chair does today. To take up the cross was to drag the cross to the place where you would be crucified. It meant the last step before crucifixion. Jesus Himself is only step ahead of us in this respect, since He has carried His cross, and been crucified. But all of this is a small price to pay for what one gains. Now, all of this is not to say that we should have a martyr complex in life. There is nothing wrong with seeking to flee persecution. Paul the apostle fled from the Jews on numerous occasions. However, it might happen that there is nowhere to flee, and the choice is denying Jesus or death. We can only make that payment cheerfully if we have a proper valuation of our own soul in relation to how valuable the things of this earth are, and if we really believe Jesus that we will not be the losers if we pay this price.
For many people think that the things of this life are worth much. Jesus here says that if you piled up all the treasures of this world in one place and gave it to a person, it isn’t worth a fraction of what that person’s soul is worth. Think of it. Each and every one of our souls is worth more than the entire world of physical things! That should boggle our minds! Our soul is worth more than the trillions of dollars floating around in the American economy. It is worth more than all the paintings in the Louvre. It is worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox. It is worth more than all the books in the library of Congress. It is worth more than all the jewels of the world. It is worth more than all the oil in Arabia. And it is worth more than all of these things combined! It is in fact priceless. And yet, how few people take care of their own souls! How few people even consider where their soul is going to wind up! How few consider how to improve their soul and make use of the means of grace! We place far too much value on the things of this world, and far too little value on our own soul. If we saw this in proper perspective, how differently would we lead our lives! How voraciously we would devour the Word of God! How attentive would we be to the means of grace that God has given us! With what great care and singularity of purpose we would pursue the things of God! If only we would value our souls in the proper perspective! And then, if we did value our souls properly, with what loathing would we view sin, that greatest danger to the soul! We would loathe sin and flee from it, if only we valued our soul enough! Verse 26 says that the entire world could theoretically be gained by a man, and yet if he loses his soul, he comes out the loser in the bargain.
There are many stories out there of men who bargain with the devil. The most famous of these stories is the story of Faust. The legend goes that Faust sells his soul to the devil for everything he wants in this life. Faust gets most of it, but the devil comes and collects the soul of Faust long before Faust is finished enjoying the things of this world. And, of course, Faust doesn’t really enjoy any of it, because he is too busy worrying about when the devil is going to come to take his soul. What a poor trade! Or, think of Ruby Gillis in Anne of Green Gables. She didn’t want to die, although she was dying of tuberculosis. She didn’t want to go to heaven, because it wouldn’t be like what she was used to. In other words, it wouldn’t be like this earth. She had had her heart too set on earthly things, and not enough on heavenly things. She had never prepared for heaven. And she was one of those who believed that she was going there! One of the main reasons heaven will be such a delight is that there is nothing present there that can harm our soul or even threaten it.
Jesus goes on to say that a person cannot give anything in exchange for his soul. In other words, we cannot ransom our own souls. Only Jesus can do that for us. He gave His life as an atonement for sin, that we might be ransomed from that cruel oppressor.
Verse 27 is difficult for us to understand. We know that we do not earn salvation by what we do. And yet here Jesus says that when He comes again, He will repay each one according to what he has done. How do those two ideas fit together? We can say this: the repayment that the wicked receive for their deeds is indeed a strict payment according to law. All his sins are reckoned up together, and the wages of sin is death, and that is what the unbeliever receives. However, the believer’s sins are forgiven. They do not come into the equation at all. So the believer receives eternal life. And his good deeds are rewarded. Now, this reward is not salvation itself, because, again, as we have seen, believers cannot earn their own salvation. However, their works are graciously rewarded according to the gospel. So, you can see that unbelievers will be treated according to the law, while believers will be treated according to the gospel. It is not symmetrical, for believers and unbelievers will not be treated according to the same standard. That should be a great encouragement for us to do good works, for we know that if we trust in Christ, our good deeds will be looked on with grace and favor, however imperfect they are. God will be looking for the least little fault in the unbeliever and rewarding that most fully. However, God will be looking for the smallest good in the believer and rewarding that most fully. I hope we all know which standard we would rather have to be our judge: the gospel, or the law?
Lastly, we come to verse 28, which is also rather difficult to understand. The reason it is difficult is that the first and the second coming of Christ are really supposed to be regarded by us as part 1 and part 2 of the same coming. Some things happen after the first coming, and some things happen after the second coming. In this verse, the coming of the kingdom certainly starts with the resurrection of Christ. And only a few disciples (most notably the false disciple Judas) would die before that resurrection. However, this verse comes in the context of the previous verse, which talks of the final judgment, which obviously will not happen until the second coming. And then, after this passage, we see the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus, which is a glimpse of Jesus coming in His resurrection glory. I do not think that this verse refers directly to the Transfiguration. However, the Transfiguration does point to the reality of which the verse speaks, and so it is connected. We affirm in the creed that Jesus is coming again with glory to judge the living and the dead. This passage is the basis of that article of the creed.
To sum up, then, we can say that we must count the cost and find it a bargain to follow Christ in His crucifixion. We must become dead to the world spiritually (not physically), and be willing to give up our all for Christ if it is required of us. We must value our souls above this entire world, and therefore be careful to do all that we can to take care of it, especially that we should entrust our souls to Jesus, who will never let it be destroyed. For the power of God is made manifest in this passage. It is the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead that will guard our souls.